Saturday, September 29, 2012

Movie Reviews-The Cabin In The Woods, Beowulf, Blue Collar, Secretary

The Cabin in the Woods
directed by Drew Goddard and written by Joss Whedon
This horror movie was an intelligent update on the whole "college kids go into the woods, have sex and get stalked by incestuous cannibals" or "geeky loser who everyone thought was dead is out for bloody revenge" or "undead entity brought back to life by someone who does something incredibly stupid" type of film genres.

It's the equivalent of a really smart person slumming in a GED class. One minute the person is pretending to be dumb and the next minute they're giving you detailed explanations of Maxwell's Equations, the Copenhagen Interpretation and superconductivity, right before they remember they're supposed to be dumb. You might say what was that and they're like who me, I'm just a dummy.

Of course if you really really don't like horror films regardless of their twists or differences then yeah, this movie won't be pretending to be dumb, it really will be dumb. So different strokes for different folks. If that is you I salute you but think you're missing out. This film is similar to Tucker and Dale... in that it messes with your initial expectations.

Ok. I hope some minor description won't spoil things. Five college friends, Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Holden (Jesse Williams), Jules (Anna Hutchison), Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Marty (Fran Kranz) head off to an conveniently abandoned rural cabin for a fun weekend. Of course "fun" means drugs and sex. Curt and Jules are an item while Curt is trying to set up Holden (his smart teammate) and Dana. So Marty is literally a fifth wheel but he doesn't seem to mind. Anyway, Jules might be up for a little extra fun with Marty if Curt isn't watching...or even if he is. Jules likes to do the do.
From the beginning we are aware that someone is monitoring the students' whereabouts and reporting back to a underground terminal center which seems to be run by Gary (Richard Jenkins) and Steve (Bradley Whitford). Jenkins and Whitford really make this movie work as they PERFECTLY embody just about every midlevel IT manager I've ever known. But we don't know who these people are or why they're interested in these kids. In fact we're not even sure that they ARE interested in the kids. And that's really all I can say without delving into spoiler territory. This was written and produced by Joss Whedon, who directed The Avengers. It's worthwhile if you are a fan of classic horror movies but are also looking for something that is both a tad more intelligent. It has lots of well placed humor and a cameo by "Ellen Ripley" herself.

I really liked this film. It shows that horror movies don't have to be dumb and gross-out, though it has its share of gore. Like any other genre, if you put good writing together with top notch production, direction, writing and lighting, and throw in some decent actors and killer special effects you can make a high quality entertaining movie. The Cabin in the Woods both mocks and endorses some common horror tropes, often at the same time. And no the black guy does not die first. If you're a horror fan don't miss this one. And if you are iffy about horror this could be a good intro.

directed by Alan Zemeckis
The poem Beowulf is the oldest surviving Old English epic poem. In Annie Hall Woody Allen famously joked that you shouldn't take any college class where they make you read Beowulf. Hmm. In college I did take classes where they made us read Beowulf though I had previously read it. It is a favorite. Beowulf was written and experienced in an evidently pre-ironic time. There's nothing that is postmodern, cynical or feminist about it. Zip. The poem's eponymous Geatish (southern Swede) hero comes to Denmark to further his name and fortune. The Danish King Hrothgar has been having his feast hall raided and his men murdered by some ogre named Grendel. A King who can't provide wealth, protection and merriment for his sworn companions is no King at all. Beowulf arrives. Upon hearing that no weapon can harm Grendel, Beowulf decides to fight him mano a mano with bare hands and match him strength for strength. One translation of the poem reads  "All at once that master of wickedness [Grendel] discovered that he had never come upon a stronger hand-grasp on this planet, in any other man in the regions of Earth."

This cat Beowulf is a bad mother....shut your mouth!!! Beowulf defeats Grendel by ripping his arm from his body. When Grendel's monstrous mother seeks revenge Beowulf kills her in an underwater battle royale. Beowulf returns home and becomes King, where decades later in his old age he must give his life to protect the land against an awakened dragon. Believe me this sounds MUCH more majestic in Old English. There's some overlay of Christian themes (Grendel is thought to be a descendant of Cain) in Beowulf but not much. This was written for and by people who either still believed in the Old Gods or had only recently converted to Christianity and retained a certain appreciation for the old ways and pagan heroism.

Zemeckis' movie captures some of the story's excitement in the knock down dragout fight between Grendel and Beowulf. But, unfortunately from my pov, the creators couldn't resist adding some modern cynicism, deconstruction, and TONS of Judeo-Christian guilt and sacrificial imagery. There's also, depending on how you look at it, either an unsubtle feminist critique, or an overwhelming fear of the female principle. The film tremendously changes the character motivations and storyline. Among other things, rather than being savage, unreasoning and implacably evil, Grendel is portrayed as being misunderstood and ultimately rather frightened and pathetic.

It's almost like going to watch The Lord of the Rings movie and learning that the One Ring wasn't at all a talisman of evil that belonged to the Evil Overlord Sauron. Instead, imagine that Sauron was a misunderstood schmuck who had given his mother's wedding ring as an engagement gift to the beautiful but vain Galadriel who had then capriciously rejected him but refused to give the ring back. And thus the war of the Ring got started. Everything else was just vile propaganda put out by Galadriel and her lover Gandalf. How you feel about these changes will depend on how you felt about the Beowulf story to begin with. If the story is new to you then you likely won't care about the changes. The changes are internally consistent at least so there's that. I just wasn't that interested in sympathy.

Arguably the original poem leaves out so much that it is nearly impossible for a film adaptation not to put in a lot of rework and new ideas. Otherwise the film would only have been about 30 minutes long. This film's screenplay was written by noted author Neil Gaiman. Some of it touches on short stories he had previously written about Grendel.
Despite those changes the film Beowulf remains interesting and even exciting. The film's major draw is the special effects, primarily the motion capture animated images of the actors. This is most obvious with Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and Grendel's Mother (Angelina Jolie) but you will be intrigued by the altered versions of several other well known actors. These include Grendel (Crispin Glover), Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson), Unferth (John Malkovich), and Queen Wealtheow (Robin Wright Penn) I like Winston's acting. His work, I guess that would be mostly voice, is pretty good here. It's hard to remember that you are watching animation. Although it's animation, it's really not for kids. Nope. There is a bawdy song about Norse wenches and glaciers, plenty of cleavage and Angelina Jolie...
I am Beowulf!!

Blue Collar
directed by Paul Schrader
Have you ever arrived to a restaurant only to find that the host has double booked you and someone else and invites you and your group to share a table? Or maybe an airline has done the same thing with your ticket?Perhaps your boss promises you a raise and a sweet position but has also promised the same thing to someone else. When that becomes apparent he tells you to just work it out and stop bothering him for Christ's sake.

Well if that happened to you I'm betting you wouldn't like it very much. You might even make a stink, threaten someone's job, or get into a fist fight. That is pretty much what happened in the movie Blue Collar (perhaps even including the fight though that is just a rumor). Rising stars Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel were all lured to do the movie with the promise that they would be the film's breakout star. After they started filming, they all learned each of the two other men had been told the same thing and the film was really more of an ensemble piece. None of them were happy with the director or with each other. The tension could be felt in the film (in a good way and a bad way) and may have caused the director to temporarily lose his marbles.

This was Schrader's directorial debut. Previously he had been best known as the screenwriter for Taxi Driver, which presumably explains the Keitel connection. This movie has a very strong realistic and seventies feel to it. I like a lot of movies from that period. Filmmakers back then weren't afraid to take chances and take a strong point of view. They also weren't afraid to take their time and let things play out. Scenes are shot and develop very organically. It's rare that you remember that you're actually watching a movie. Blue Collar shows that Pryor may have missed his calling as a dramatic actor. He turns in very strong work here. In a different world he could have become like Robin Williams, known as much for his dramatic roles as for comedy. There's some small comedy here but it's balanced over a knife's edge of danger and drama. I think this is Pryor's best dramatic work. If you only know him as the wild and crazy profane comedian or as the enfeebled fool or old man from his later roles you may be rather surprised by his work here. It's too bad he didn't have more roles like this.

Blue Collar is a film that is close to my heart because it is set in Detroit, (although much of it was shot in Kalamazoo) and shows the lives of people that aren't seen in the movies very much, blue collar auto workers. These aren't guys who can goof off and daydream on company time or company property. They can't come in late and leave early or take 3 hour lunches. These guys don't work with computers. They work with their hands, their back and every single muscle they have anywhere from 8-12 hours a day or more. They're on the clock and must produce every minute while they're there or someone will immediately get in their face and demand to know why. Some relatives worked in the plants. They were adamant that it was not a job they wanted their children to do. It's hard, tough, backbreaking and monotonous work.
Zeke Brown (Richard Pryor), Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel), and Smokey James (Yaphet Kotto) are Detroit autoworkers who have put years of blood, sweat and tears into their jobs and don't have much to show for it. Honestly they don't have anything to show for it. For Zeke and Jerry, who are married men, this is really becoming a problem as they struggle to provide for children's medical and educational costs, pay back loans and taxes and maintain their wives' respect as family providers. This last is crucially important and is something that has until recently been overlooked in modern life. No matter what people say most men and women still expect the man to be the primary provider. If he can't handle that role, and Zeke and Jerry are slipping, the marriage will suffer. Smokey is single and has no family to complicate things but he's tired of the bs all the same.
Zeke is smart enough to figure some angles. He works hard, knows the rules and isn't afraid to stand up to management or his union rep. But he's not smart enough to find a way out for himself. Smokey lives by a one day at a time, don't f*** with me and I won't f*** with you ethos. And Jerry is a true believer in hard work and the union but is really too scared to imagine that there might be something else out there. The only thing the trio have going for them is occasional parties with women not their wives, alcohol and some drugs. And those pleasures are fleeting. Because the next day they're still poor with no future. Feeling oppressed not only by the auto company but by an indifferent and corrupt union they get the bright idea to rob the union office. This will allow them to pay some bills and get out from under.
Unfortunately there is very little money in the safe but there is something more valuable and much more dangerous: information. And the powers that be want that information back. Now.
The three friends come up against a mostly unseen and seemingly unbeatable enemy that will endanger them physically and seek to corrupt them and/or break them apart from each other. How they deal with this is a quiet tragedy. If you liked movies like Norma Rae, Matewan or Harlan County USA you may like this film. It's a little didactic, especially near the end, but it's more than worthwhile in my view. It's very rare that you see a film that so openly discusses the class issue. This wasn't played for laughs. The story was serious. I would like to see more movies like this being made today. I think there could be a market for them. I loved the soundtrack by Jack Nitzsche. This film can be hard to find but if you do come across it please give it a look see. I think you might be impressed by it. "Enjoy" is probably the wrong word to use here.

directed by Steven Shainberg
Ok, just up front this movie is not for everyone. But you should probably already know that because it stars James Spader. It is occasionally explicit. It's certainly not for kiddies. This film is, in a weird twisted way, a romantic comedy. It's a fairy tale, a modern day Cinderella. It follows the primary tropes associated with that genre; a strong minded yet traditional woman convinces, after struggle, a high status man to settle down with her and her alone, after both she and her prince have proven to each other that they are indeed worthy of one another.
The difference is perhaps minor and perhaps quite major. It all depends on your point of view. I was reminded to watch this film again by both the current frenzy over 50 shades of Grey and seeing a commercial for Maggie Gyllenhaal's new movie, Won't Back Down.

The twist is that both the Cinderella and her Prince in this story are deeply disturbed, even warped beings, who nevertheless find something useful in each other.
Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal) is a young woman recently released from a mental hospital. She cuts herself. Lee is an extremely shy person and is an introvert even among introverts. Socially inept doesn't even begin to describe her. Her parents (Lesley Ann Warren and Stephen McHattie) are unpleasant people. I wouldn't want to spend time around them either. Seeking a new start while also dealing with an on-again off-again relationship with dweeb Peter (Jeremy Davies), Lee answers an ad for a legal secretary for lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader). As it turns out Grey is a domineering perfectionist who notices everything and misses nothing, not Lee's cuts and certainly not her typing mistakes. If there's one thing Grey can't stand it's a typo. Grey is something of an oddball himself and has trouble talking to people, especially women. When his verbal reprimands of Lee fail to have the desired effect he corrects her physically. As it turns out this is something that turns Lee on IMMENSELY. She wants things to continue down this path. Grey does as well but is afraid to admit that. He's ashamed of what he likes and is more than a little disturbed by the fact that Lee's needs mesh perfectly with his own.

In a deliberately parallel story to the idea of gays coming out of the closet first in self-acceptance and later to the greater society, Secretary tells the story of two people who are perfect for each other, provided they can each admit and accept their outre desires. YMMV for this film. It is occasionally funny but the ending is over the top. I suppose you could call it a happy ending though. Probably one of the more important things in life is to be honest about who you are and what you want. This is true even if, or rather especially if, society finds who you are to be disgusting or shameful. Watching this film I of course remembered this song by Tom Lehrer, which I heard on the Doctor Demento show many many years ago. Snicker.
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